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The idea of inviting Yosef Lapid to an intimate meal at Sycamore Ranch came to Ariel Sharon during a session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week. It didn't happen all at once: In his remarks to members of the committee, Sharon said something about how in the past four years he has been to a restaurant only twice, in order not to make life harder for his security team. At another point in his review, he said that because there is no flak jacket that fits him, he continues to go without.

MK Roni Bar-On felt there was an inconsistency in the two statements: if you eat out at restaurants so seldom, he asked the prime minister, how is it that they haven't yet found you a flak jacket that fits?

At which point Lapid put in his two cents. You have no idea how delicious the food at the ranch is, said the head of the opposition in reprimand of Bar-On. Sharon got the hint. Two days later, he called Lapid and invited him to a late Sabbath lunch at the ranch, which subsequently - once the Haredim complained to the Sharon people - became an early dinner. You might have thought that Lapid would boycott the event due to the shameful capitulation to the Haredim. But he restrained himself. After all, the late Lily's Hungarian recipes ...

Lapid's state of distress is palpable. Seventy percent of his voters think the Shinui faction mustn't bring down the Sharon government, and in so doing foil the disengagement, even if this would entail support for the budget and the transfer of NIS 290 million to Haredim. But Lapid has another, long-range problem: finding a new agenda for his party before the next elections, which will presumably be held early next year. The secular-religious lemon has already been squeezed dry, and it is doubtful whether Shinui would again be able to produce 15 Knesset seats out of it. Even Shinui voters, when asked in polls what subject troubles them the most, rank the religious issue at the bottom of the list; they are mainly concerned about the diplomatic issue and the economic issue.

Lapid therefore seems to be groping his way to the left. This shift is reflected in a certain softening of his attitude toward the Geneva understandings. Shinui Youth met last week in Tel Aviv with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, one of the prime movers behind Geneva, and with the director-general of the Geneva Initiative, Gadi Baltiansky. Lapid made an appearance and bestowed his blessings on the get-together, which was also attended by two Shinui MKs, Ilan Leibovitch and Igal Yasinov. In the past, Lapid had forbade Shinui MKs from taking part in meeting with the Geneva people.

Another indication: in his meetings two weeks ago with the Swiss foreign minister and the EU's foreign affairs delegate, Lapid said he was not opposed to the contents of the Geneva plan, only to international intervention. "Everything has to do with appearances," says Lapid. "I was opposed to Geneva, and am still opposed. I thought then that Geneva was a mistake and I still think so. Only yesterday [Friday] I went to see Margalit [Dan, a journalist and friend, one of the chief backers of Geneva - Y.V.], and I told him that his enthusiasm was disproportionate."

Lapid says that there is not necessarily any connection between the two. The representatives of Shinui Youth told him they were interested in meeting with the leaders of the Geneva Initiative, to "widen the scope," and he found nothing wrong with that. "As far as I'm concerned, they can also meet with Dahlan," he said. He told the Swiss cabinet minister that he is not opposed to the peace process, that the opposite is the case, but he also told her that the Geneva Initiative amounted to meddling in the internal affairs of Israel, because these sorts of moves have to be made with heads of state, and not with Yossi Beilin. "Today, more than ever, Geneva seems a little pathetic," he says.

As for the decline in the political value of the religious-secular issue, Lapid says that at the present time, it seems of lesser consequence, for two reasons: because everyone is busy with the disengagement, and because Shinui succeeded in removing the Haredim from the sources of power. "I have no doubt that as soon as things calm down, the issue will be back in the headlines. Has anyone noticed that a few weeks ago Ms. Livni oh so quietly backed down from having the Dovrat report apply to the Haredim?"

Netanyahu treading water

Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to vote in the cabinet against disengagement was predictable, and the interpretation of the decision was predictable, as well: Netanyahu is seeking to crystallize the right wing of the Likud around him, in order to bolster his status as Sharon's successor, be it in the primary for leadership of the Likud or in a vote in the Likud Central Committee on the party's list in the next Knesset election.

In most internal polls now being taken among members of the central committee, Netanyahu ranks in fourth or fifth place. One poll conducted by the Geocartographia Institute, a polling firm, ranked Netanyahu in first place, but this was not typical. In all of the other polls that are being commissioned by high-ranking party officials to be used by them as tools in their work, Netanyahu is behind the ministers Tzachi Hanegbi, Yisrael Katz, Danny Naveh and dismissed minister MK Uzi Landau. Opposition to these Likud leaders in the rightist central committee is low-intensity, in part due to their identification as opponents of disengagement.

These were the results of a poll held two weeks ago among 800 members of the central committee, at the behest of a high party official. In sixth place, Netanyahu placed slightly ahead of Silvan Shalom, who was ranked seventh, and both men were beat out by MK Gideon Sa'ar, another opponent of disengagement. The poll, conducted by the Smith Institute, asked respondents to rank the MKs according to the following question: Are you certain you would vote for the candidate in the elections for the Likud list for Knesset; think you would vote for him; don't think so; or are certain you wouldn't vote for him? Some 52 percent of respondents are certain they would vote for Netanyahu; 17 percent think so; 23 percent think they wouldn't or are certain they wouldn't. Some 51 percent responded that they are certain they would vote for Shalom, 23 percent think they would vote for him, and 12 percent think they wouldn't or are certain they wouldn't vote for Shalom.

The results for Sa'ar, chairman of the Likud faction and the coalition, are far better. A total of 56 percent confidently said they would vote for him, 26 percent think they would vote for him, and only 12 percent responded with varying degrees of disapproval. (The poll in question was not commissioned by any of these three individuals).

A cursory study of the findings provides an indication of why Netanyahu decided to vote against disengagement, contending that he feared for the unity of the people without a referendum. It is also understandable why Shalom placed himself at the helm of the supporters of a referendum, even though he voted in favor of disengagement. Netanyahu can vote `nay' and survive politically. Had Shalom voted against disengagement yesterday, he might already be clearing out his desk today, in favor of Shimon Peres.

The second lady of Yahad?

If everything goes according to the plan of Brigadier General (res.) Rachel Dolev, Colonel (res.) Ran Cohen could lose his status as the highest-ranking officer in the Yahad faction. Attorney Dolev, the erstwhile chief military censor, filled out a Yahad membership form a few weeks ago, and she is seriously considering vying for a place on the faction's list for the next Knesset.

"I am not yet categorically certain about the matter," she says, "but it is clear that I didn't go there to serve coffee." She says that immediately after her discharge from the IDF in June 2004, following 30 years of service, it was obvious to her that her natural place was in the party of the left. Primarily because of the diplomatic issue. Yahad miscreants have dubbed Dolev the "parachuted" candidate of party chairman Beilin, which raises the ire of veteran but lesser known female party activists who are hoping to be elected to the Knesset on the basis of the new Yahad constitution. The constitution states that Knesset members who have served more than eight years in the Knesset will have to enlist at least 60 percent of the votes of the party's selection body if they wish to be named to the panel of Yahad candidates to the next Knesset. This proviso applies to MKs Yossi Sarid, Ran Cohen and Haim Oron, but also former MKs Naomi Hazan, Yael Dayan and Anat Maor. Faction chair Zahava Gal-On, currently considered the strongest woman in Yahad, is exempt from the 60 percent hurdle. The question now being asked at Yahad is who the second woman in the first six-candidate grouping will be (the Yahad constitution also determines that two women will be represented among the first six places of the list for the next Knesset).

Dolev does not fall into the trap that the interviewer tries to set for her. When asked in a telephone conversation yesterday morning if it is true that she has joined Meretz, she corrects the interlocutor after the briefest of hesitations. "Yahad."

Nicely done, she is told, Beilin would be pleased. "Yes, he will be pleased," she says. "I imagine that he is going to be pleased with me in general." And not because of her coffee.